Block’s Response to Lau and Brown on Inattentional Inflation

Ned was nice enough to point out that the proofs of his response to us are available online. I want to thank him for his engagement but there is a lot I don’t agree with. I want to say something about each section but first I wanted to address his claim that the argument from Inattention Inflation is question begging. He is wrong about that

He says,

Apparently, their argument is this:

  1. The first-order states were about the same in strength as evidenced by the equal performance on discriminating the gratings;
  2. But as reflected in the differing visibility judgments, the unattended case was higher in consciousness;
  3. To explain the higher degree of consciousness in the unattended case we cannot appeal to a first-order difference since there is no such difference (see premise 1). So the only available explanation has to appeal to the higher-order difference in judgments of visibility.

He then agues that the only reason we would have for accepting premise two of the above argument was a prior commitment to the higher-order thought theory, which is clearly question begging.

First I would object to the characterization of our argument. Premise 2 should not say that one case was higher in consciousness but rather that there were phenomenological differences between the two cases. If there is a difference in what it is like for someone when we have reason to think that there is no difference in their first-order states, then we have reason to think that phenomenology is not fully determined by first-order activity. Block seems very confused by this but isn’t there an obvious difference between clearly seeing something presented to you and just catching a quick glimpse of something or other presented near threshold?

I think that ultimately his argument in his reply to Inattentional Inflation (II) is that since we have two models that both predict the same pattern of results we cannot use the pattern of results as evidence for one model over the other. The two models are

  • (A) a first-order view where difference in task performance is indicative of no difference in conscious experience and difference in report is indicative of cognitive effects without necessarily effecting phenomenology.
  • (B) a higher-order view where difference in task performance is not indicative that conscious experience is the same and difference in report is indicative of an effect on phenomenology.

The question then comes down to which of these two models we should prefer.

In giving our answer to this Block edited a quote from us without indicating that in the text. We say “if a combined increase in the frequency of saying “yes I see the target” and higher visibility ratings is not good evidence that phenomenology has changed, what else can count?” and he quotes us as just saying if “higher visibility rating is not good evidence…” totally ignoring that we explicitly said it is the combination of both that we are replying on. This is misleading!

It is both of these that lead us to think that there really is a difference between the two cases and that leads us to think (B) is the right interpretation. They say they see it more often and also rate it as more visible even though they are not doing a better job of detecting the stimulus. It has nothing to do with the fact that we are willing to defend a higher-order approach to consciousness.

It is too bad that Lau et al do not collect anecdotes from participants but I think just from our ordinary everyday experience we have some cases of inattention inflation. Sometimes as I am sitting at my computer writing something I will think that I saw the little red icon in the right corner of the screen that alerts me to an email in my inbox. Sometimes I will check and it will indeed be there. Other times I check and there is no red marker. But it sure did seem like there was one there just before I looked! The idea is that something like this is going on in the experimental conditions. I predict that if asked subjects would be surprised to find out that (some of) their false alarms were indeed false.

Block goes on to attribute to me “in conversation” the claim that training and reward did not influence the results. It is funny because we say it in the paper! But I did emphasize this at the pub after LeDoux and I gave a talk at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group. Anyway, in response to that Block says that it would nullify the findings of the original paper that this is an effect of judgement. But that is silly because our claim was that since there is reason to think there is a difference in phenomenology and that the relevant difference psychologically/neurologically was a difference in HO representation then there is reason to think that HO state explains the difference in phenomenology.

Overall, then, I think it is really unfair to say that this argument is question begging. It does depend on their being an actual phenomenal difference when task performance is the same but we think we have good reasons to believe that which are independent of the higher-order view.

Consciousness Science & The Emperor’s Arrival

Things have been hectic around here because I have been teaching 4 classes (4 preps) in our short 6-week winter session. It is almost over, just in time for our Spring semester to start! Even so February has been nice with a couple of publications coming out.

The first is Opportunities and Challenges for a Maturing Science of Consciousness. I was very happy to see this piece come out in Nature Human Behavior. Matthias Michel, Steve Flemming, and Hakwan Lau did a great job of co-ordinating the 50+ co-authors (Open access viewable pdf here). As someone who was around as an undergraduate towards the beginning of the current enthusiasm for the science of consciousness it was quite an honor to be included in this project!

In addition to that Blockheads! Essays on Ned Block’s Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness is out! This book has a lot of interesting papers (and replies from Ned) and I am really looking forward to reading it.



Hakwan Lau and I wrote our contribution back in 2011-2012  and a lot has happened in the seven years since then! Of course I had to read Ned’s response to our paper first and I will have a lot to say in response (we actually have some things to say about it in our new paper together with Joe LeDoux) but for now I am just happy it is out!